Michelle Donelan demands drop-out rates on university advertising

It says here that Michelle Donelan has set out the [Westminster] government's vision for higher education with “quality, fair access and transparency” at the forefront.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Speaking to a conference staged by UCAS, Donelan said that what “we as a small island” have managed to achieve in higher education is “nothing short of extraordinary”.

And so to maintain and build on that record, Donelan said she was using her speech to answer two major strategic questions – what does the future hold for higher education, and how are we building that future.

Big narratives require big ideas. What we got was flashing up the drop out rate on a university TikTok, and some [approval of someone else’s proposals for] tweaks to personal statements.

Three big themes were touted in the speech – quality (in teaching and outcomes), transparency (for students) and fairness (for students and staff).

Then, as is now customary having set out some grand sounding ambitions, a desperately thin and relatively rag tag collection of bits and bobs of policy were then pinned to them, like lonely post-it notes on a sheet of flipchart paper on an away-day that everyone wants to forget.

For “quality”, Donelan said that we cannot expect to be able to sit back and “quietly polish our world-class reputation” in a globalised higher education market – a “defensive game” when it comes to quality “will not do”.

The answer? OfS’ B3 outcomes proposals.

For “transparency”, Donelan referenced her revamp of her “clear labelling system”, reminding providers that universities not demonstrating excellence in their provision will face receiving a “requires improvement” rating in the TEF, which she said allow students to make properly informed decisions about whether or not to study there.

Tough luck if you’re already there, or already paying back your loan from having dropped out from there.

But that wasn’t the only transparency measure in her drive to put students [applicants] in the driving seat enabling them to make informed choices:

Talking about informed choices – I expect many of you here will be getting public transport home today, and chances are you will see an advertisement for two things on your way home: credit cards and universities.

When you look at the credit card advertisement, you’ll notice that no matter what the sales line is, or how appealing the wider terms, the APR is written in black and white at the bottom.

This information is there because of a conscious decision by government to ensure that consumers can make informed decisions before they make such a significant financial and time commitment.

But then glance over to the university advertisement next to it. You will notice that in sharp contrast, bold claims about career enhancement and graduate salaries are not backed up with the real information, despite the financial exposure of most courses being greater than most credit limits.

And for anyone with the data to hand, the potential for students to be misled could not be clearer.

Yes, you read that right. The Minister who just a fortnight ago slipped out a statement on a Friday afternoon revealing she was retrospectively worsening the terms of student loans today used the analogy of financial services regulation to castigate universities for misleading students. You couldn’t make this stuff up:

Just like a credit card advertisement including information about APR, university adverts will reflect the need for students to understand where a course can take them, and give them the information they need to choose the course that fits their goals.

So “as of today” Donelan announced that she is asking that all adverts in next year’s admissions cycle – whether they are online, on a billboard or in a prospectus – take the “simple, easy step” of providing comparable data on the percentage of students who have completed that course, and the percentage of them who have gone into either professional employment or further advanced study.

I’m personally looking forward to universities having to train their “influencer” youtuber students to do the drop-out rates chat like those “your home might be at risk” disclaimers you get at 100mph on radio adverts.

There will even be an advisory group on the measure that will “put students in the driving seat”, although student representatives are missing from the list of organisations that she says will be in the actual driving seat of developing the guidance.

For “fairness” we got a reminder of John Blake’s new access and participation agenda at the Office for Students, no new detail on the lifelong loan entitlement (including the continued no-show of the consultation on it and the legislation to underpin it), the NDA pledge from a few weeks ago and an endorsement of UCAS plans to “reform the personal statement”.

All of which comes hot on the heels of Donelan publishing a letter to a VC on Friday afternoon asking him to stop offering conditional unconditional officers – only for that university to point out that the regulatory prohibition on conditional unconditionals lapsed on 30 September 2021:

We assumed that the letter was private correspondence and we will continue to treat it as such.”

Maybe everyone else will be more compliant over the “drop-out rates on billboards” pledge.

Now at this stage you might be thinking that the information given to prospective students, the personal statement required as part of the process, and the way offer-making is carried out could form a series of important issues in the government’s admissions review.

But there was no mention of that review today – despite the fact that the press has been reporting that Gavin Williamson’s solutions for fairness (PQA or PQO) are “dead in the water”.

Alternatively you could remind yourself that the review your old boss launched on PQO/PQA actually caused a pause in OfS’ own review of admissions was explicitly proposing to look at applicant information, application processes and offer making. No mention of that either.

You could think – as I was stupid enough to do this morning – that a trailed proposal on student information on outcomes might link to wider sabre rattling in the press on having to publish face-to-face contact hours. No mention of that.

Draw in the Advertising Standards Agency when arguing that universities “mislead” students? Work with the Competition and Markets Authority on the “material information” issue? Issue strategic guidance to the Office for Students over its role in promoting choice information? Call on the Financial Conduct Authority to start regulating student loans? None of it.

It’s almost as if the government’s proposals on PQA/PQO have been killed off by your new boss, and rather than cancel the grand speech launch speech setting it all out, you turn up, deliver the first verbose half of the speech intact, and then scrape around for the tiniest bits of the barrel bottom for the rest.

“Nothing short of extraordinary” indeed.

4 responses to “Michelle Donelan demands drop-out rates on university advertising

  1. My question is what marker will be used? At the point of enrolment? HESA return deadline? And what about students who transfer or are direct entrants into L5 and 6? Understanding withdrawal reasons are critical but we just do not have that data across the sector because every university collects it differently. I have been calling for SLC to collect this data for 4 years so that we have consistency, we at least know the reasons for why those entitled to and have used an UG/PGT loan have withdrawn, and when they last attended. This information is critical in enabling universities to develop a strategy for retention. Students providing a reason for withdrawal can be part of the SLC loan closure process.

    1. ….and in College based HE the ILR deadline is a full month before the date Universities are required to make their HESA return. Comparing apples with oranges, and as ever, College HE loses out!

  2. So Ms Donelan compares the information prospective students receive to that provided for people entering into credit agreements to avoid misleading students. No mention of the fact that the government are able to change the terms of student finance on a whim and change the terms on which graduates first entered into agreements. Whilst I am not against students having full transparent information one of the most important aspects of this is student finance. If she is such a fan of transparency maybe she should have considered this before recent, retrospective changes were made which impact on graduates.

  3. Absolutely, Martin. Pretty sure credit cards can’t do that.

    And this is not the first time they’ve announced a new requirement halfway through or even after most institutions’ prospectus print runs…

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